A PERSONAL JOURNEY: PART 2
31.05.2010 - 05.06.2010
Yishan and I arrived in Jiufen, a small town perched on a hillside, a couple of hours outside of Taipei. Since its time in the Qing Dynasty, little Jiufen has pulled itself through a few phases. First, it was a small town of little significance, second, a gold-mining town bursting with activity. Now, it is somewhere in-between since the mines shut down in 1971, and since the Japanese (during their occupation) built a nice collection of quaint tea houses that the current day tourists seem thankful for.
Backpacks in tow, we entered into the maze of wavy lanes, stacked like wedding cake tiers connected by steep staircases. Jiufen's wiggly paths inspired an entire film set for the 2001 Japanese animated, Oscar-winning movie Spirited away. Yishan, with the directions, led the way to a church which offered accommodation to travellers in need of a place to stay. You see, Jiufen had no official hotels, only homestays- a point that came to realisation when the church attendant refused to let us- a mixed couple, to all appearances- through their doors for fear that we'd go to hell for being the opposite sex to one another. As Yishan talked with the attendant in a conversation that seemed abnormally long for what was, in the end, a blunt conclusion, I was happily left propped-up against the church wall admiring the gorgeous view of the hill town, the sea curving against the land in the far distance. Had we been two guys, we would have been allowed to stay. As I contemplated that scenario, I wondered how far into the realm of sexism that was, and ironic considering the church's history with homosexuality scandals. Then realising I was being a little too serious, we followed the lady's directions and found a simple homestay, a homestay with charming Japanese wooden floors and solid, earthy furniture; thankfully, for a modest sum.
The defining characteristic of Jiufen is its innumerable network of stairs and Chinese lantern-laced pathways, on which lay a village-full of charismatic old wooden houses, shops and further afield, temples. The overall structure of the town was somewhat reminiscent of Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria, only the Taiwanese have succeeded in nursing a more effervescent tourist site in Jiufen, capitalising on its meander-inducing atmosphere. The second-most prominent feature was the smell. Along Jishan Street, stalls were selling solid blocks of caramelised peanut, a woman with an old wooden plane shaving off great pieces in practised swipes. The smell of seafood played second fiddle to sweet almond powder milk drinks, fresh marzipan, fruit jelly, barbecued beef and pork and hot molten ginger drinks. Unfortunately the polar-opposite to this nasal heaven was also in attendance: the most unpleasant odour of stinky tofu. Don't be mistaken, this is no average tofu. Tofu was a delight in Asia and a big part of the everyday diet. Stinky tofu on the other hand was cooked in such a way that it smelled like fishy pants soaked in garbage and fermented sick.
I tried a lot of things, even the tofu, but Yishan was like a kid in a candy shop and discovered Jiufen by mouth as much as by deviant wandering, devouring great mouthfuls of stinky tofu as we sat beside the snaking crowd.
Before leaving the hillside town on the second day, Yishan and I took one last mooch about and climbed a couple of hundred steps across town to see Fu de Gong- a temple within a temple.
At the entrance of the temple were stone pillars and lightly-smoking incense sticks burning away and surrounding the temple with spiritual aromas. Iron cages wrapped around the lower portion of the pillars to protect the stately, carved structures. On either side, guarding the entrance, was one male and one female dragon, differentiated from one other by a simple anatomical observation. Sections of the outer walls were decorated with intricately and deeply-carved panels and straight, grey slabs of granite with gold-painted Chinese characters deeply embossed. Inside were more incense sticks, a large bell and drum hanging to the left and right of me, numerous pillars, granite walls and oval doorways on each side. In the very centre was a stone pool with a dragon turtle statue being clambered on by two-dozen real turtles. I stepped up to the old temple within. Its old, white, cracked and stained tiles bore hand-painted images of figures in poses of awe, depicted in soft yellows and floral pinks that were still going strong to the present day alongside a rustic brown-grey stone front with bamboo imitation window bars made of more stone. Unravelled scrolls laid above the entranceway.
Inside, hanging red lanterns with long tassels, white tile walls and over six hundred LED-lit, plastic edifices to a bearded man on either side. A wondrous wood-carved piece in the centre of the small temple space completely defeated the grasp of my intellect with the result of what must have been the work of outrageously skilled hands. On the table were many small statues of the same bearded man cloaked in silk robes, stitched in green, blue, pink and yellow. Also on the table were offerings from the local 7-Eleven. I'd have been surprised at that kitschy image if I hadn't noticed a 7-Eleven shop on just about every street corner in Taiwan, or in fact two 7-Elevens within a couple of hundred metres of one another, going about their business, posing as deeply-ingrained cultural institutions, in neon suits. I couldn't help but see that temple as an image of Taiwan, penetrated by man's modern offerings to a traditional base.
Jiufen had hinted at the old-world, without itself actually being that old. Taiwan felt like a vaguely aged island in brogues and a loafing jacket. On the plane, I expected modern at every turn. After all, this was Taiwan right? The land responsible for the oh-so-ubiquitous imprint- Made in Taiwan. That wasn't what I got. I did meet relaxed people with a natural sense of connection to contemporaneous culture. People that believed in a right to free trade and politics as an autonomous entity in a modern world, but somehow Taiwan felt tatty around the edges and a rather mediocre in-between stage of traditional living and the parvenu in society. In a sense, I didn't feel the pulse of the old in anything substantial and I didn't catch the breath of progression in a big way. Maybe Taiwan's population were happy in the middle. I actually liked it and felt comfortable here. But Jiufen was an architectural spike in Taiwan's cardiac monitor, for which I was grateful. And on the bus back to Taipei, where my sleepy head drooped sideways throughout the journey, Yishan pointed out another.
'You can see 101,' she said with a mellow tone. And sure enough, through grey skies and busy roads, there it was. Taiwan's greatest modern achievement- Taipei 101. The skyscraper held the title of World's Tallest Building for six years and was only trumped by the almighty Burj Khalifa of Dubai in 2010. The funny thing about this building was that Taipei 101 was so much taller than anything else in the city. It was as if they agreed to construct the tallest building in the world out of sheer boredom, or just because they could. I could see it now:
So shall we build this thing or what?
OK, let's do it.
Done. What now?
Get some bubble tea?
And since then, nothing's come close to it on Taipei's skyline.
Determined to show me around Taipei, Yishan led me arm in arm beneath our umbrella around the back streets of Da'an. The cafés and small restaurants selling both Chinese and Japanese foods seemed to whet her appetite for the diverse element in Taiwanese eating habits, but it was the tea house Wisteria that really charmed us both. We turned into the small courtyard off the main road; several koi carp swam in a concrete pond sunk into the pavement opposite the front door. Inside, the building was distinctly Japanese in style with green wood panels on white-painted walls. A polite and appropriately-dressed lady led us to a back room where the floors were covered in woven mats and silver-grey lounge cushions. The table was low and made of a dark wood; delicate, classical piano music played from the speakers. We chose our preferred tea from a menu not unlike a wine list in its complexity. After five minutes, in came the hardwood tray with clay pots and tiny china cups on top. We stared at the tray of trinkets and realised this was beyond our expertise and called the waitress back to show us the procedure. Therein followed a succession of steps so delicate and ceremonious that you needn't come here for the tea at all, just the experience of pouring it. Each cup had to be warmed first by pouring the hot water from the glass teapot, which sat on top of an iron stand with an oil wick burning beneath it, from one receptacle to another and pouring the wastage into a large china bowl. The waitress' graceful fingers swept across the tray, picking up the shallow funnel, which resembled a flat ring, sunken slightly towards the middle, and placed the wooden object over the rim of the small clay pot, and using the long, thin wooden spatula, she encouraged the tea leaves into the pot before adding the hot water. The tea is left for ten seconds before pouring until empty into the ocean cup- a communal cup that when poured from again, ensures an even strength of tea is given to each recipient. The tea passes from the ocean cup into our two miniature china cups, at which point we were told we should take the opportunity to smell the tea, then pour it to a tiny china bowl, then to smell the cup for a second time to savour the remaining aromas before finally drinking the tea from the small bowl. And breathe...
I felt like I was in a scene from The Karate Kid Part II. It was a procedure that seemed respectful, almost therapeutic, allowing you to savour the subtleties of the tea's character.
Yishan's elegant poise shone even more brightly amongst the environs; her tied-back fringe showing her glowing face in quiet contemplation. She sat with a straight back and beautiful square shoulders; one shoulder was covered by the tan and black sarong that she often tied around her well-proportioned frame; the other exposed but for the hair that swept over it like a fresh brush on fine porcelain. A thin bamboo curtain divided the two halves of the room, separating us from two men on the other side, and there, we drank tea while the rain continued to fall and pitter-patter on the window from a sullen sky.
The rain persisted while we collected our bags from Meli and Garret's apartment across town. In Hong Kong I had discovered the magnificence of bubble tea, a stand selling the drink sat right next to Elaine's apartment entrance and tempted me to buy every time. Bubble tea was in fact a Taiwanese invention, so you see, I had come to the land of its inception and there was no way I was leaving without having at least one for the road.
The bubbles in bubble tea were small spheres of tapioca, which sank to the bottom of the large paper cup and at each slurp came up through the wide straw into your mouth, along with a refreshing icy-gulp of either black or milk tea, depending on your preference; you could even choose the flavour of the bubbles in some instances.
Like a seasoned veteran of the drink, I found I was rather keen on green grass jelly milk tea, which had a huge block of wobbly jelly at the bottom of the cup, resulting in a long string of jellified sweetness squeezed through the straw with each gulp. Discovering little pleasures that fused me to a country's culture by enjoying the delights of some of its unique concoctions was a source of real enjoyment. I couldn't imagine the Czech Republic without Pilsen, Istanbul without cream cakes and India without Chai and masala dosa. They were interwoven fabrics that patched together the whole experience. Bubble tea was the same, and I knew I would pander for it just like I did the others.
'We're on the fifth floor,' said Yishan, with five outstretched fingers. I climbed the stairwell, strangely calm that I'd be staying in Yishan's parent's flat and would yet again be saving a few dollars on a hostel. I walked through the front door; the small flat was thoroughly decked-out with lino floors. Net curtains and doilies seemed to fringe every entranceway and surface in what would have been a retiree's dream-scape.
The bedroom I'd be occupying had a slightly raised, dark wood floor and thick duvet and covers laid out directly onto it. Yishan's Mother, stretching to be host of hosts, fluffed and tampered with everything to try to put me into an equilibrium of comfort and correctness, but negated her own actions by stirring up the atmosphere and the unworthy details into fiddle-worthy issues. Yishan brought out the hypnosis hands; I smiled quietly to myself.
I woke at the exact moment Yishan pushed open the door to my room and sat down next to me with a smile. It was a sight that brought comfort in the new and unfamiliar surroundings while I rubbed my eyes awake and sat up in 'bed'.
Out in the front room, Mrs. Lee had already been cooking since early morning and a large pot of stew lay by the coffee table. I reminded myself that I was a guest and should try to eat whatever lay within, but my pride and gag reflex remained alert, just in case. The soup of the stew was strange to the taste. It struck me as familiar, but took me a while to figure out that it was a most unlikely ingredient: alcohol. This was another Chinese traditional tincture where it was believed the alcohol was remedy for a sore throat and chesty cough. I sipped a small portion of the alcohol soup and gnawed on a couple of pieces of chicken on the bone, seeking out the small shreds clinging to the bony lumps. Yishan then served me a rather unusual-looking piece of meat. It was white and kidney-shaped, about the size of a golf ball, with slight purplish veins stemming from the inner section. Yishan happily chewed one of her own; I placed mine non-dramatically into her bowl as I realised what it was. She tried to tell me it was chicken's di-di (penis), but the shape was unmistakably bollock-like in form. I avoided all things testicular and politely refused to try the ball-sack at any price. Thank God for the cold pancakes and ketchup.
Yishan handed me a free day-pass for Taiwan's clinically-run MRT underground train network and presented the idea that we should take a walk around Xien Beitou. The tranquil area and pristine library offered an appropriate level of chilled-relaxation for my last few days in Taiwan.
At Danshui- a quaint area by the river's edge where food stalls emitted concocted aromas attended by smiling adolescents- we slipped into a tiny water-side coffee shop with a frontage just large enough for a small counter and narrow stone staircase leading up to the tiny, covered verandah above. From the darkness of the evening we shuffled past the white cat which stood resolute on the third step. Of the black patches on the cat's fur, one was unfortunate enough to be positioned so as to look like a Hitler-moustache.
On the verandah, looking out over the black expanse of the river and sipping a creatively-decorated coffee, I became embroiled in a sense of calmness. I was happy with the way this trip had gone and the more I remained, the more comfortable and confident I felt. However, I would not be staying beyond the next few days.
The more comfortable I felt, the more I enjoyed reminding myself where I was and what I was doing. The next day, after eating a lunch with organic Chinese greens- which Yishan's Father grew in a bathtub on the apartment block roof- Yishan and I jumped aboard her little scooter, which judging by the tatty exterior and temperamental starter had seen better days, but which zipped us along adequately on Taipei's moto-mad city highways anyway. We flew along the motorbike lane of the interconnecting roads, 7-Eleven iced coffee in one hand, firm grasp with the other, and reached the botanical gardens of Taipei in no time at all. A bed of lotus plants lay restful across the central pond, a domestic cat prowled on paddling mallards and a Taiwanese man couldn't resist taking pictures of me-the foreigner- with his long-lens SLR, despite me peering straight down the barrel, unimpressed.
Close-by, Taipei 101 sat mystified by a cloud of fog around its upper echelons. Approaching on the scooter it became clear that one can only comprehend the size and grace of '101' when you get to within a hundred feet of it. It was with annoyingly light pockets that we decided not to go up for the asking price of NT$350 (about £8), instead walking around the lower floors and gazing at- but daring not to walk into- the overpriced designer clothes vortex. Despite not going to the top, it was an undeniably impressive sight. And as for the Burj Khalifa, well, I might just have to pay it a visit one day.
Later that evening, the surroundings of the airport closed-in on what had been a worthy trip. I literally couldn't fathom where the last two weeks had gone. Yishan stayed close-by as we lounged in departures, stretching out the minutes in reflection and wondering where the road would take us next. She had to go one way, and I the other, edging towards security and back to Hong Kong. The time came as she waved from afar. I turned, smiled and watched as the tip of her head hesitantly disappeared down the stairs. And taking a deep breath, in the spirit of travelling, I walked on in positive anticipation, trusting that by doing the right things today, the future would take care of itself.